JACKSON, Mississippi — Three supporters of state Sen. Chris McDaniel were found locked inside a courthouse in Hinds County, Mississippi, well after midnight on election night.
Right now, it’s unclear what time they got there or who else was there when they did. But Hinds County Sheriff’s office spokesman Othor Cain told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that McDaniel’s campaign coalition director, Scott Brewster, and conservative activists Janis Lane and Rob Chambers were locked inside until they were let out by an officer around 3:45 a.m. Wednesday.
Cain said there was never a threat to any ballots as they were already secured when the three got there.
“There are conflicting stories from the three of them, which began to raise the red flag, and we’re trying to get to the bottom of it,” Cain said. “No official charges have been filed at this point, but we don’t know where the investigation will lead us.”
The Clarion-Ledger, which broke the story, originally reported that “Cain said the Sheriff Department filled out a report on the incident, but there’s no investigation or anything,” but the sentence has since been removed from the story without explanation.
The Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) campaign has argued that this incident is as if McDaniel’s staff and direct supporters were involved in a “break-in.” Cochran’s campaign has also compared this to the issue where blogger Clayton Thomas Kelly allegedly illicitly photographed Cochran’s wife inside her nursing home, which has resulted in his and three others’ arrests.
“It is astonishing that the same people who are up to their eyeballs in four felons breaking into a nursing home are also up to their eyeballs in potentially breaking in somewhere else again,” Jordan Russell, Cochran’s campaign spokesman, told the Clarion Ledger. “And this time they can’t deny that a paid staffer is involved. At some point you got to say enough is enough. How many more arrests of allies and McDaniel team members before we can say this has gone too far?”
But McDaniel’s campaign says nothing illicit occurred–and Cochran’s just trying to stir up trouble for political purposes. McDaniel’s team says that a police officer in uniform let them into the building.
“Last night with an extremely close election and Hinds being one of the last counties to report, our campaign sent people to the Hinds courthouse to obtain the outstanding numbers and observe the count,” McDaniel campaign spokesman Noel Fritsch said in a statement. “In doing so, they entered the courthouse through an open door after being directed by uniformed personnel. They were then locked inside the building. At this point they sat down and called the county Republican chairman, a close Cochran ally, to help them get out. Eventually a Sheriff’s officer showed up and opened the door to let them out.”
The “close Cochran ally” they called was Hinds County Republican Executive Chairman Pete Perry. Perry told the Clarion-Ledger that Lane did call him around 2:00am to notify they were locked inside.
“Predictably, a close Cochran ally wants to make hay out of this,” Fritsch said. “Sadly, the Cochran campaign wants to make this election about anything but issues. Mississippians deserve better than this sort of distraction politics.”
Perry said, according to the local paper, that ballots that were being counted inside the building were locked up around 11:30 p.m.
“I don’t care who it is. I have a concern with someone being in the courthouse with all the election material down there,” Perry told the Clarion-Ledger.
Perry has not said when he was gone from the courthouse property, or if he was notified prior to their arrival that Lane, Brewster and Chambers were coming to the courthouse.
By about 11 p.m. that night, CNN reported Cochran aides were already conceding that the 42-year incumbent could not win re-election outright.
Update: The Hinds County Sheriff’s Department is challenging McDaniel’s team’s story, saying that a law enforcement officer did not direct the McDaniel supporters to the open door.
Spokesman Othor Cain told the Clarion-Ledger on Thursday that the sheriff’s office does conduct security for the courthouse but only during business hours.
The local paper quoted Cain as saying McDaniel’s campaign was lying.